Orange Order's agenda now at the centre of unionist politics
Published 05/07/2014 | 02:30
When Edward Stevenson took over as grand master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland three years ago, his calls for unionist unity around Orange principles were taken with a pinch of salt.
The Order was a declining force numerically. It still is, and a year before the Ardsraw farmer took over, it had torpedoed an agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP to replace the Parades Commission.
Orange leaders had urged the parties to make the deal, so there was egg on everyone's face when its Grand Lodge kicked the idea out on a split vote.
With this background, Mr Stevenson seemed to be aiming impossibly high as he attempted to bring big political players like the DUP and UUP under the Order's wing. Yet yesterday he had his moment. The policy he outlined had come of age.
The two big parties along with the TUV, PUP and UPRG paid court to Mr Stevenson and his colleagues at the Order's new headquarters at Holywood Arches. Afterwards the politicians left it to the Order to craft a statement summing up proceedings and setting out demands.
The Order and its concerns are now front and centre in unionist politics. Its Chaplain, Rev Mervyn Gibson, seemed the most influential person in all-party talks on flags, parading and the past.
He seemed even more influential when the DUP and UUP scuttled the talks because the Parades Commission had refused to allow three lodges to march past Ardoyne shops as they return from the field this Twelfth.
That issue is now so important that First Minister Peter Robinson has warned that the political institutions could collapse if it isn't sorted. His words show that the Order's influence is now higher than at any point since the days of Lord Brookeborough, who was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland from 1943 to 1963.
How will Mr Stevenson and his colleagues use this power to make or break governments? They say they will have more talks in the coming days and tell us their plans. "Grand Lodge is also mindful at this time of restrictions on other Orange parades throughout the province," Mr Stevenson said, making it clear that the pressure he intended exerting would not just be about Ardoyne.
This is new territory for the peace process and many will be disturbed by the development. The one positive is that the Order and its grand master say they are determined to pursue their agenda peacefully and lawfully. "I would once again reiterate the Institution's call for any protest to be lawful and peaceful. Violence will not help our cause, and only play into the hands of our enemies."
Let's hope that the Order sticks to this line if, as seems inevitable, it doesn't get everything it wants in the coming days. In the past the Order and its supporters have lashed out, attacking the police and becoming the focal point of riots.
This is an organisation that has a history of overplaying its hand. If it does so on this occasion, it will quickly lose sympathy.